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(Stephan Savoia | The Associated Press) Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, addresses voters at a house party held for him by Karen and Woody Eitel in Randolph, N.H., Friday evening.
With campaign at stake, Huntsman counting on surge

Former Utah governor says he feels “a little momentum.”

First Published Jan 08 2012 05:31 pm • Last Updated Apr 05 2012 11:33 pm

Durham, N.H. » Six months into his presidential race and just days before New Hampshire voters hit the ballot box Tuesday, Jon Huntsman takes the microphone and feigns shock at his situation.

"I can’t believe I’m here," he says to a crowd at a printing press manufacturing plant. "This is unbelievable."

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It’s a stock laugh line that the former Utah governor has used, and used, and used. But soon, Huntsman may be able to drop that line. Belief is in the air.

Tuesday marks the biggest test of Huntsman’s White House bid, a primary contest that he has thrown nearly all his resources, time and effort at, and one that could prop up, or on the other hand, end, or fatally wound, his chances if he comes up short.

"I feel a little momentum," the former governor told reporters Sunday night. "I feel a little surge. We’re still clearly the underdog and because of that we have a lot of work ahead of us ... and we’re not going to stop until we reach the finish line."

Huntsman has watched all of his mainstream rivals — each in turn — bask in their share of the spotlight, a bewildering reality to the Huntsman camp still awaiting its turn. The fact that the glow has missed him so far is not for lack of trying.

After whittling his ambitious, three-state campaign plan down to just the first primary state, Huntsman essentially moved into the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester and headed out to meet every voter.

After thousands of handshakes, scores of town halls addressed and millions spent, Huntsman finds himself struggling in the shadow of front-runner Mitt Romney and losing key independent and moderate voters to Rep. Ron Paul.

Huntsman has bounced up and down in the polls in the past week, but hovers between 8 percent and 11 percent. A tracking poll by Suffolk University and 7News shows the candidate slowly surging up, though it was unclear immediately how solid his support was.

Huntsman supporters are wondering why their guy didn’t pick up more momentum before.

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"I don’t know why. I really don’t know why," said Mike Daigle of Stratham, N.H. "He has a really good message; he’s down to earth; he’s honest; he’s trustworthy. Maybe you’ll see something different on Tuesday."

Ben Wheeler of Rye, N.H., agrees.

"I think he’s going to have a better showing than what we think he might have in New Hampshire," Wheeler says. "He’s starting to catch on in New Hampshire. I have a lot of friends who are registered Democrats who are starting to talk about Huntsman and see him as a viable candidate."

But there’s the rub: Democrats don’t vote in the Republican primary, although that’s the support Huntsman seems to be attracting.

Boxed in » Huntsman’s campaign has touted him as a conservative, former governor of a conservative state and pushed that he is anti-abortion, fiscally conservative and wants to clean up the tax code, all very key Republican litmus tests.

Huntsman makes a point at every campaign stop that he’s not there to pander. He’s not going to "contort" himself into a pretzel ideologically, he says, just to get someone’s vote.

It’s an approach that’s worked well with some voters.

"He seems to be fairly moderate," says David Macdonald. "He’s not a whack-job from the right or a whack-job from the left. I’m just too tired of all that in our government."

But not so with others.

"I’ve got to say he’s very articulate and clear," says Justin Wilson of Henniker, N.H., after attending a Huntsman town hall. "Some things he’s pretty good on. A lot of stuff he says on taxes [are] right."

So you’ll vote for him?

"No, I doubt that," Wilson says, noting he’s still undecided but doesn’t think he’s a Huntsman voter.

Some of the lack of enthusiasm about the candidate can be explained by digging into surveys of voters here.

Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and head of its Survey Center, says Huntsman made a strategic error by trying to target independents, which make up a big block of voters in the state but still may align with Democrats or Republicans.

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